In 2017, I sat in a conference room in rural Illinois with pastors and their wives. And their wives. And listened to a class on how to bridge the “urban” and “rural” divide.
If only we could learn more about the rural mentality, the class’s instructors urged us, we could heal our nation. I didn’t disagree, not entirely. America is a large country, and ignorance about regionalisms and stereotypes are pervasive. How often did I have to read political think pieces about Iowa with tortured musings on the flat empty fields? Or read one more profile of a farmer in a diner musing about the way things used to be?
The class operated from the basis that a lot of post-2016 political analysis asserted was fact: Elite Americans had lost touch with the rural working class. We had ignored the silent voices of so many beer-guzzling, McDonald’s eating, salt-of-the earth types. We needed to listen. To bridge the divide.
There were soft focused profiles of white supremacists. Mother Jones coined the term “dapper white nationalist” to describe Richard Spencer. Everyone read Hillbilly Elegy. In 2017, David Brooks lamented that it was the elites focus on “food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention [possessing] the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality” that was making it impossible for the poor to succeed in America.
If only we could bridge the divide. In this class, bridging the divide meant eating the food of the town (no being a vegetarian), dressing like the people in your town, the pastors advised. One pastor’s wife raised her hand to ask if that meant she could wear her jewelry, did she have to get rid of her brand-name purses? I expected the leaders of the class to say, “There is Gucci in Sydney, Iowa, too!” But they didn’t. They told her to pray about it.
I wondered about dietary restrictions, disability, and skin color. I thought of all the ways I’d contorted my body and my appearance to be more pleasing and more attractive, just so people would like me. And how it didn’t work. How I had bent and broken, but always by virtue of being who I was, was never good enough.
That year, my politically divided marriage had fallen apart. We spent years in therapy trying to come together. To compromise over issues like whether I could have a coffee mug that read “motherfucker” on it. And finally, one day, I decided I would not compromise. I was sick of hiding my coffee mugs and not being able to talk about my work at the table. The therapist had us working on a puzzle together. A task I resented because I had suggested a beach vacation. But instead, we’d compromised on a beach-themed puzzle. I also resented it because the metaphor felt forced. Find the pieces together, and we’d connect a broken picture. If we didn’t, we’d be a puzzle with a missing piece.
But neither one of those happened. Because night after night of coming downstairs and silently piecing together a picture of an ocean, when really all I wanted to be was at an ocean, I quit.
This wasn’t a compromise. Going to Michigan instead of Florida, that’s a compromise. This wasn’t even meeting halfway.
One night, I came downstairs, stepped around the puzzle and sat on the couch and changed the channel.
Some bridges need to be burned.
After our nation’s Capitol was invaded by violent insurrectionists and our members of Congress impeached the president again, dissenting voices called on us not to “further divide” America. They ask us to bridge the divide.
If bridges are built, whose bodies are broken in their construction?
The idea of the poor overlooked poor is a myth. The violent mob were cops, CEOs, and bankers. This wasn’t a lack of education or opportunity. This was a choice made without thought of consequences because in their privilege, they thought there would be no consequences. And to be fair, there hadn’t been thus far. This wasn’t “the other side,” this was every side. You cannot build a bridge to something already in your midst.
You don’t cure a cancer by reasoning with it, or letting it edit the Politico Playbook, you eradicate it with a medicine so powerful it radiates through your entire body.
There is no compromise with an ideology that is rooted in white supremacy. You can’t go halfsies on whether we should let democracy or an autocrat rule our nation. When we compromise with violence, violence wins. When we deign to debate lies, the lies are given credence. When we decide that a person’s humanity is a topic of polite discussion, we concede that their humanity is in question and in the process lose ours.
No, there are no bridges to be built. These bridges are for burning.